I have been involved in various forms of system and network administration for the last 15 years. During that time, I have had the opportunity to work with many company administrators, outside consultants, and technical peers. I have also taken part in many interviews for administrative positions.

Based on my experiences, I have come up with a list of skills or qualities that I think are important for a technical person to have. There are more specialized skills to look for (such as experience in a specific OS or application), but I think the following ten skills should be present in any mid- to senior-level administrator applying for a technical position today. I also believe that IS management should place a high value on these skills, as they are present in the most qualified technical people

  1. Know how to find things. This is probably the most important skill for an administrator. You must be proficient at using and interacting with all kinds of resources. These include peers, tech support centers, consultants, websites, search engines, mailing lists, vendors, tradeshows, conferences, manuals, books and magazines.

  2. Be cross-platform proficient. It is increasingly rare to find positions that deal with only one type of computer platform. Your value is as an administrator is greatly increased if you are knowledgeable about more than one operating system. It is extremely frustrating to interact with people that have built walls around their knowledge and refuse to look outside their immediate area of interest.

  3. Keep learning. You must constantly learn new things or you will stagnate. Learning new things keeps you sharp and relevant. The barriers to learning have never been lower. You can get cheap or used computers to run versions of Windows, Linux, and MacOS in order to teach yourself about them. Get at least two computers and network them together. If you cannot do this as part of your job at work, do it at home.

  4. Do not be afraid to move on. There has never been more demand for good technical people. It looks as though this situation will only become more intense, at least in the short run. It is a mistake to remain in a work situation where you do not fit, or just because you are worried about finding a job elsewhere. It is very natural to find that the job you enjoyed two years ago no longer fits you. There is typically a natural progression from dealing directly with end users who have desktop support problems to more long-term project-oriented tasks. It is important for both employees and managers to realize when these changes occur and to do something about it.

  5. Know about networking. The more you know about networking technology the better. Networking technology is part of every operating system and of most applications. The vast majority of computer users only understand networking as far as sharing files or viewing a web page. You can distinguish yourself by knowing how things work at the protocol level. It is extremely rare to find technical people who can dissect a problem from the application layer all the way down to the physical layer. The really tough problems usually require this level of understanding.

  6. Use the same criteria for success as your employer. Make sure you are doing what your employer wants you to be doing. For example, some administrators coming from an academic background may be used to installing the latest version of software the moment it is released. A business may be using a 5-year old version of software because it is a known quantity and they value stability over new features.

  7. Avoid special deals, one-time offers, scams, and cronyism. Try to keep your purchasing habits as clean and standard as possible. Every kind of backroom arrangement that I have had to be a part of has been more trouble in the long run than the open and standard arrangement. This is especially true when something goes wrong and you do not have the normal recourse that a legitimate, full-paying customer has. The relationship with a vendor should not be personal. You do not want to find out that something is only supported because someone's brother-in law works for the supplier. I have refused "wholesale" prices on equipment because I knew this would prevent me from obtaining support from a dealer at a later date.

  8. Avoid having a platform agenda. Choose solutions based on what will best serve the end user or customer, not some personal preference on your part. In some cases, you may wish to choose the best software first and have this decision drive what operating system is used to host it. Some administrators can afford to be "platform zealots", but this rarely works in the real world. Sometimes the best solution is not the best technical solution. Other criteria can include cost, ease of use, available administrator or programmer talent, and vendor stability.

  9. Do not hide information from others. Some administrators fear being made to look bad by their own mistakes or by competition from co-workers. I would rather deal with someone who told me exactly why and how they made a mistake than with someone who does not speak up when they trash something. Computer software and hardware are becoming so reliable that more and more system problems point to administrator error rather than the mysterious and unexplained failures of the past. Administrators working in a group should also refrain from hiding information. The goal should be to make decisions based on the collective wisdom of the most knowledgeable people.

  10. Look out for yourself. Do not rely on your employer to choose a good career path. This is something you should constantly and actively consider on your part. You should think about what you are best at and enjoy the most, and how to make it your central activity. If this is never going to happen at your current job, perhaps you should move on. You should constantly weigh the good and bad things about your job on a scale, and when the scale tips to too heavily towards the bad, start looking.